Since the release of Gen Stanley McChrystal’s report on the US effort in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, pundits and policymakers in Washington D.C. have been waiting with bated breath for the outcome of the war room briefings that have been taking place in the White House.
It was rumoured that the much-awaited decision regarding the provision of an additional 40,000 troops requested by Gen McChrystal, who is the top US commander in Afghanistan, would come in the footsteps of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s acquiescence to holding run-off elections in early November. Yet even as Mr Karzai announced his support for the run-off elections, there was no sign of a decision from President Barack Obama’s camp regarding an increase in troop levels in Afghanistan.
Yet while administration officials ponder the onerous decision of whether to commit thousands of more troops to Afghanistan, there is little sign that anyone in the Obama administration has even been charged with the task of coming up with a strategy for Pakistan. While there has been applause in Washington for the Pakistani military following its recent offensive in Waziristan, there seems to be scant consensus as to what sort of national security dividends the United States expects to reap from the offensive.
One central source of confusion and division in Washington pivots on whether security objectives in the region must be directed towards the Taliban or Al Qaeda. The confusion between the two and the consequent paralysis it has instigated among those constructing Obama’s policy harks back to the fateful campaign slogans that painted Al Qaeda and not the militants among the Iraqis or the Afghans as America’s ‘real’ enemy.
As the Pakistan Army continues its offensive against the Taliban, it is thus this lingering question that once again haunts both the White House and Congress. The perplexity of their dilemma was highlighted at a congressional hearing held last week where military analyst Frederick Kagan insisted that the war against Al Qaeda also meant a war against its allies and proxies (the Taliban) while across town White House press secretary Robert Gibbs played down the threat posed by the Taliban saying: “Their capability is somewhat different (from that of Al Qaeda) on the continuum of transnational threats.”
The uncertainty of how to proceed on Pakistan is compounded by the inability of US analysts to distinguish between its nation-building efforts in Afghanistan — a relatively desolate land that has been ravaged by 30 years of war — and Pakistan, an increasingly urban nation of nearly 170 million, which has elements openly scoffing at US aid. The theme of ‘inter-connection’ of ‘AfPak’ has often misled officials with little geographical or socio-cultural understanding of the difference between the two countries into believing that they are crude extensions of each other.
Hence the assumption that throwing aid towards Pakistan would accomplish similar nation-building goals as has been pursued in Afghanistan and simultaneously buy the goodwill of the people. The vacuity of this superficial recipe was exposed by the public outcry in Pakistan following the Kerry-Lugar bill, when the intractability of buying hearts and minds with aid disbursements came into sharp focus.
Strategic complexities in arriving at a plan for Pakistan are compounded by political complications that arise from President Obama’s core constituency: the American left. Traditionally anti-war, they spent the campaign revelling in the fact that Obama — their dream candidate — had never supported the Iraq war. They thus remain ambivalent regarding the troop build-up in Afghanistan and utterly confounded as to where they should stand on Pakistan.
While some have admittedly come out against the drone attacks in Pakistan that have killed civilians, others are vexed at the possibility that their anti-war president may be dragged to a third front. Their current paralysis and the possibility that they may vehemently oppose an increased troop presence in the region suggest untold political costs for the Obama administration in the upcoming mid-term elections and could lead to further indecision on Pakistan.
In essence, the ongoing military operation launched by the Pakistan Army against the Taliban has effectively exposed a gaping chasm in US policy towards the region. In the months leading up to the recent offensive US officials such as Defence Secretary Robert Gates and even Centcom chief Gen David Petraeus presented a series of cataclysmic pronouncements urging the Pakistan military to take the Taliban threat seriously.
Yet now that the Pakistan Army has done exactly that it seems unclear what the US expects as the end-game of this battle. Its dithering on the issue of whether or not it will choose to have a stronger troop presence in Afghanistan and the confusion regarding whether its efforts will be directed against the Taliban or Al Qaeda represent deepening divisions and unclear objectives.
The conundrum is exacerbated further by the diminishing influence of Obama’s special envoys to the region on policy discussions regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. The sidelining of special envoy Richard Holbrooke from discussions with President Karzai on the issue of run-off elections is yet another example of the fact that those actually negotiating with players in the region are losing crucial ground.
Ultimately, the absence of a cohesive US strategy towards Pakistan beyond urgings
to take the threat of the Taliban seriously is reflective of an omission that is likely to impose both political and strategic costs on the United States. For Pakistan, the war against the Taliban is territorial and directed specifically at gaining back control of specific regions. For the US, the connections drawn between its national security concerns and fighting territorial wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan are far more complex.
The evasive logic of these connections has become especially problematic when US policy towards Pakistan is exposed as a lurid hodgepodge of drone attacks, aid packages and diplomatic urgings to fight the Taliban. Given the already fragile relationship between the US and Pakistan, the absence of a comprehensive and clear plan towards the region does little to reassure Pakistanis that their status as American allies will continue in the years to come.
The writer is an attorney and director at Amnesty International, USA.